02 July 2008

The Righteousness of Faith

By Douglas G. Grace

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendents through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. Romans 4:13-15

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13

Are you well or sick? Righteous or a sinner? Do you adhere to law or faith? Do you desire mercy or sacrifice? The imagery of New Testament dualism intrigues my mind -- in truth, it probably confuses my mind even more! Do we sit with our sacred texts and reflect upon what is really meant by “sickness” or “wellness,” and how Jesus and Paul turned traditional religious and cultural understanding of the righteousness of faith on its head? It is easy for modern theologies to miss the significance of continuing dualistic thinking in western culture. Often we read contemporary theologians point-out in a politically correct fashion that in reality we are all “sinners who fall short,” but that really isn’t Matthew’s point here is it? A general melting pot of sin or sickness is not present in these passages, but a pointing out of the clear prejudice of the so-called righteous over the so-called unrighteous. Jesus’ mercy levels the Way of the Lord and restores the so-called sinner to the status of righteousness.

We in the Presbyterian Church USA need to deeply wrestle with the fact that culture and religious “law” continues just as it did in Jesus’ time to call some sinfully sick and others well and righteous. I believe that sacrifice of some continues to be the way of the church as it responds today to the dualistic thinking of righteousness and unrighteousness. Church and society often scapegoat some in the name of unity. But I wonder how the church honestly grapples with the fact that this passage from Matthew leads to Jesus concluding in the next chapter that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Unity often gets mistranslated into uniformity. But for Jesus, his table was hardly properly uniform as he sat with tax-collectors and sinners while temple leaders boasted of lawful righteousness in the name of peace, unity and purity!

Many know all too well how damaging rigid dualistic thinking can be – potentially resulting in not only injustice but also in individual neurosis, shame or guilt. How many adult theologies were shaped by a strict childhood emphasis on being “righteous?” Not only should the church be concerned about restoring the shamed to righteous, but it should also be concerned about creating an environment where all can embrace the wholeness of Christ’s love and freedom.

The past academic year, the Conservative Jewish movement’s leading seminary, The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, opened its doors for the first time to openly gay candidates to become rabbis. In announcing the seminaries historic decision of inclusion, the chancellor wrote:

We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be modified, in accord with our society’s changed knowledge about and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God’s image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances. (From In Our Community, The Jewish Theological Seminary, March 26, 2007)

Christians and particularly Presbyterians must ask themselves, “How is it that Conservative Jews are able to carry out the Biblical prophetic teaching, which Christians believe Jesus embodied as reflected here in Matthew’s Gospel and Paul’s letter, yet Jesus’ own contemporary disciples remain unable?"

Creator God,
At your command, all of creation was good. Restore our understanding of your goodness. Silence the confusion we hear in our minds so that we may be open to the wholeness of your spirit and the goodness in our lives. Sustainer God, inspire us to center your love within ourselves so that we may acknowledge the depth of true loving righteousness in our heart, mind, soul and strength. In loving you, may we open to truly loving and understanding our neighbor, no matter how sinful they may seem. And may the strength we find in your love guide your church in its understanding of law. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray, AMEN.

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